26 June 2010

The first tentative steps in China and feeling like a celebrity

On the evening train out of Mongolia, we seen the last proper pieces of Mongolian landscape that we would come across properly. We woke up the next morning near the border, with the local guards asking for our documents.

Another drama ensued with Audrey’s credentials on the Chinese side. While in London, she was told the only thing she could get was a “Travel Document” to allow her to enter from anywhere apart from Hong Kong, where she should be using a “Travel Permit”. Unfortunately nearly no one in China, including border patrol people, know of this.

So she was hauled off the train to sit in an office for 20 minutes, until some supreme-know-it-all-official told the dopey-sub-ordinates that it was all in order, and released her back to the confines of the train. It’s been two weeks in China now, and most people query her about the travel document (it is required for any lodging in China), thinking it some sort of fake. I’ve had no problems so far.

The train then pulls into a huge warehouse to changes the bogeys (essentially the undercarriage). The gauge width is different between China (on the European standard) and Russia (their own standard, to make it more difficult for the west Europeans to invade using rail). Since we’re not allowed off the train, we watch out the back window while the carriages are slowly raised up, the wheels pushed out and pulled away by a huge crane and replace by another very similar looking set, then lowered back down.

We’ve got a few interesting pictures of it happening, but it’s still proving a nightmare to add all these types of things while in China. I might finally get around to it when in Hong Kong.

That evening we arrived in Jining, a tiny provincial place in China of ‘only’ a few hundred thousand. We wanted to get a train onto Datong, but it was too late, and the queues for tickets was huge, so we got a nice hotel on the main square by the station.

We got some local food, and the local waitresses made quite a fuss over us, which was nice, and gave us a little present as we left. Back at the main square a group of locals were doing a street version of a Beijing Opera, with about 100 people gathered around watching. I’d read from Paul Theroux that this was a popular form of entertainment back in the 80s, and it seems to have carried on until today.

We stopped to watch it; interesting music, strange pitched singing and random dancing. We understood nothing of what was going on, but the locals seemed to appreciate it. Very quickly, a lady appeared requesting a viewing fee of 10 yuan each (about £2 altogether). We were probably being ripped off, but she seemed very insistent, and we wanted to watch a little longer, so we paid up after a bit of hesitation.

By then, though, we noticed a crowd starting to gather around us. Audrey started fielding random questions from the locals:

“Where is he from?”
“Why are you here?”
“How old are you?” (Chinese have no hesitation in asking personal questions, including how much you earn.)
“How old is he?” (On the next train journey, a lady guessed I was 45, I blame the beard for adding 15 years.)
“Where are you both staying?”
“Does he speak Chinese?”
"How much do you earn?" (!?!)

And so on. The crowd had swelled to about 60 people, and for the first time I knew what it felt like to be swamped by people. Few were watching the Opera guys (who I was nearly feeling sorry for). This was much more intense than when we were in south Mongolia in a town called Dalanzadgad, a wide-open place of about 15,000 people. Lots of people (actually teenage girls) would smile, say hello and ask my name (and I would do likewise), but that would be about as far as a conversation would go, as they’d reached the limits of their English and I’ve no Mongolian.

Back in Jining, discomfort soon set in, and after about 20 minutes, we headed back to the hotel. I’ve no idea how celebrities feel when out and about, but I imagine this is about the closest I’ll get to it (but without the bodyguards).

The receptionist told us that despite working in one of the nicer hotels in town, in the main square by the train station, I was only the third foreigner she had ever seen. It explained a lot. I was a curiosity, a freak. No doubt helped by the beard (which now has obvious random grey bits in it to go with the ginger).

On another note, signs in China, even within these couple of days, already had me chuckling. In the train into China, the toilet had a sign indicating not to jump out the window, it read:

“Cherish your life, don’t jump out”

I felt that, in reality, the railway operators were more worried about train delays for the rest of us. Another was in the bathroom of the hotel in Jining; beside a picture of someone sliding on a slippery floor:

“Carefully slide”

The next day we went to Datong, seen the Gungang Grottoes, which were awesome, but quite expensive at 100 yuan (about a tenner). There are no local prices here, so it probably means large swathes of the natives can’t afford it (average wage in China is still around £200 a month). I think these top sites can afford to do it since even if only 10% of Chinese (still their main market) can afford it, they will have enough tourists. I feel it is a grossly unfair system for the average Mr. Chan.

We got the night train to Beijing at 22:48.


King prawn said...

Fantastic post Stephanie. Very interesting about the different sized railway tracked just in case the West Europeans invaded. Trust you to find out these tasty bits of info:~)

Strange that Shoe Shine Tam is having so much trouble with her visas and having her honesty called into question every time you guys try to find somewhere to sleep! I mean really, your the one with the face that looks like a sink plug hole filled up with red hair and a couple of teeth thrown in!! Who would you trust more? Hahaha ahhh.., Im just kidding, you look beautiful;) (and trustworthy).

Hey you should get some large pictures of yourself and offer to autograph them for people. Like you say, it's as close to being a celebrity as you'll ever get so just enjoy it. You know I'd be taking advantage, He he;)

Cant wait for the next blog. My Mom and Dad are loving it.

Katie said...

lmao! this is such a funny post i lol-ed a few times lol!!!

Katie said...

can't wait to see you guys!!!!!